The Romance Novel as an Art Form

by | January 25, 2019 |

This post on art form was first published on July 16 2014.

Here’s a bold thought: the romance novel is an art form.

Yes, it’s an art form like any other. It’s a very popular art form. In terms of numbers of practitioners, it’s at a polar opposite from, say, avant-garde artists who are, by definition, few.

Already 150 years ago Nathaniel Hawthorne stigmatized the size of the romance writing world. He  referred to the “damned mob of scribbling women.” Their books outsold his and were driving him – a more deserving writer, from his POV – out of the marketplace. Today he’s read in all American high schools. So, good on ‘ya, Nat.

Me, I’m waiting for a Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School to understand the romance genre. In the American academy scholars are working on popular fiction. I’m just not sure anyone has theorized aesthetic taste on a wide scale and the particular taste for the romance. But that’s not my job.

Romance and the Art Form of Painting

My job is to create my stories. I’ve long thought of my work in relationship to the French impressionist painter, Paul Cézanne, who created a series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire (see title image). He would paint this mountain, perhaps, at 4:30 pm from one angle. Next time around he might paint it at 8:00 am from another angle. As I look at his series, I have the sense he’s making a slow turn around his mountain, painting it from this angle and in this particular light and then from that angle and in that particular light.

My Mont Sainte-Victoire is the love relationship. Over the years I’ve been slowly moving around my mountain, seeing it from this angle and in this light and from that angle and in that light. I’ve been interested to paint the love relationship in its many colors. There’s love at first sight, the battle of the sexes, friendship warming to love, opposites attract, and the arranged marriage where the couple has to learn to love. The variations are endless.

Romance and the Art Form of Rock Music

I’ve also long thought of my work in terms of the Rolling Stones in two ways. First, in “Street Fighting Man,” Mick Jagger asks: “Well, then, what can a poor boy do/ ‘Cept sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band?” My version is: “Well, then, what can a suburban girl do/ ‘Cept write her romance novels?” Okay, my line doesn’t scan, but there it is. Nothing in my experience would prompt me to write a book Oprah or the New York Times Book Review would be interested in. All of my imagination moves toward the emotionally saturated, dialogue oriented, physically and often erotically rich genre known as romance.

Second, I’ve long admired the Stones for trying out their versions of various rock subgenres: blues, honky-tonk, hard, soft, anthem, ballad. For my part, I’ve loved exploring the range of romance subgenres. In the subcategory of Historicals alone I’ve written Medievals, Regencies, Americana (e.g. Westerns), Renaissance, and Scottish Highlands. Then there’s my time-slip series, which involves reincarnation, see The Blue Hour. I’m now working on the second book in a shapeshifter series. The first is Buy Me Love, a British police procedural crossed with a werewolf story.

In short, the romance genre is one whose improvisatory range is extremely rich for me.

Romance and the Art Form of the Pin-up

As a kid I sneaked enough peeks in Playboy magazines to be aware of the painter Alberto Vargas. He specialized in pin ups. I remember gazing at his images in fascination, not only because I thought they were pretty, but also because I was musing over an inchoate, kid-sized version of the question, “Is this art?” Whatever my answer, I could see that the painter had a vision for what he was doing.

I couldn’t have formulated the thought at the time, but in retrospect I can see that Vargas was not posing new questions about his subject matter in the way that, say, Cézanne was. However, I am clear that Vargas was working within an art form. Did he make some kind of contribution to it? I’m not sure, but I do think it’s possible to have something new and interesting to say about his chosen art form.

Romance is an Art Form

Am I making a comparison between romance novels and pin up posters? No more than I am making one between Impressionist paintings, rock ‘n’ roll, or even The Scarlet Letter.

I am exploring here the idea of an art form. As a subject matter for art the love relationship strikes me as the mother lode. It’s gold.

It’s also beautiful. In my blog post Five Myths About Romance Novels I wrote about Renaissance paintings depicting the Madonna and Child. I note here that those paintings are beautiful, too.

See also: Puritans and the Romance Novel

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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